Force of Habit

Another look at basic black

I have seen her twice in one day, so it's not my imagination: a nun in full habit, long skirt, looped rosary, veil blowing in the summer breeze. The only slightly anachronistic touch is the backpack slung over one shoulder. I look around for a film crew, wondering if this young woman is in costume for some movie set in the 1950s.

In my childhood, no one would have looked twice at such a figure. Nuns were part of the landscape in those days, at least in the urban northeast where I grew up.

Catholic-school grads tended to stand up straighter, put out their cigarettes, and lose the chewing gum when a sister appeared on the scene. But there were no double-takes. Back then, a habit was conventional. Now, it's almost a radical statement.

Fortysomething years ago, most religious orders of women began to modify and eventually eliminate the habit. Inspired by the reforms of that let-the-fresh-air-in pope, John the 23rd, nuns took a long, hard look at their role in the modern world. For many, the wardrobe was a symbol of the past, quaint but no longer relevant.

The habits, after all, were originally modeled on the contemporary dress of their particular era. The nuns who taught me wore 19th century French widow's attire, clothing that was modest, durable, and unremarkable when the order was founded in 1800. By 1963, it was definitely dated.

One of my old teachers put it this way: "The habit separated us from the people we served."

So they packed away the coifs and veils and scoured resale shops for suits in navy and gray, creating a more egalitarian uniform of serviceable skirts and drip-dry blouses, the discreet cross on a lapel pin. Nothing important had changed, we were told at alumnae gatherings. They were the same nuns.

Well, sort of. The blast of fresh air had blown away more than starched cuffs and antique headgear. Gone was the mystique of effortless perfection and unblemished virtue once ascribed to anyone wearing a habit. These women in secondhand suits suddenly seemed like real, live people with human failings and human limitations.

Like most Catholic girls of my generation, I entertained a brief fantasy of becoming a nun. I imagined myself in a flowing veil, looking a lot like Audrey Hepburn. The habit seemed to underscore the clarity of the vocation. It was all there in black and white: the uncompromising vows, the absence of ambiguity. The narrow gate.

I struggled with the idea of nuns in plainclothes. Priests and ministers who wear clerical garb are approached in airports and baseball stadiums and subway stations by people in need of comfort.

The Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa's nuns, serve in the worst slums of the world, places where violent street crime is a daily occurrence. Their simple blue and white saris and veils identify them and, to some extent, may also protect them.

I didn't get to ask the sister I saw why she wears the habit, but I've done a little research. It seems that even as vocations to the religious life dwindle, orders that still wear traditional dress have noted a recent increase in aspirants. One young novice explained in a newspaper interview that she believes the habit makes a statement about the life she has chosen. It doesn't proclaim saintliness or superiority, she said, but rather another way of looking at the journey.

It is visible evidence that this ancient path still winds through the modern world and that all kinds of people—rich, poor, flawed, striving—still choose to follow it.